Michael Vessely is in an interesting role as golf course superintendent of the Culver Academies Golf Course in Indiana.
He is charged with maintaining a layout that was essentially asleep for over 50 years, a stunning design, nevertheless, that ranks among the very best nine-hole courses in North America.
Bobby Weed and Chris Monti of Bobby Weed Golf Design brought back Culver originally laid out by the team of William Langford and Theodore Moreau in 1924. The rededication took place Oct. 1 of this year. The work was funded by alumni donations.
Prior to the restoration, there was no superintendent to take care of the layout. The grounds staff that looked after the rest of the prep school maintained the course. The course turf was irrigated regularly, every Tuesday, whether it needed it or not.
The greens, some of them over 10,000 square feet, had large areas that had turned into collars, fairways and rough. Bunkers had long ago been abandoned, the sand covered by grass.
“It was 80 years of nothing,” Vessely says.
The restoration was well underway and an agronomist had been on site by the time Vessely came on board in 2014. It was not long before he realized he was in a unique situation. Yes, the turf had not been properly maintained – he likened traipsing across the greens to “walking on a mattress” – but Vessely was also intelligent and observant enough to realize that the bentgrass, including what appeared to be very old south German varieties, were doing very well in spite of the lack of care.
“There was not a lot of Poa in the greens,” Vessely says.
Aeration of the putting surfaces started, as did a once-a-week light top-dressing that Vessely says added about 2 inches of sand. Thatch has been greatly reduced and the firmness increased, but Vessely is intent on helping the older varieties continue.
“You don’t want to do too much because some of it did survive. We restrict water because that’s how they’ve been taken care of,” Vessely says. “Keep it simple is how I approach taking care of these greens and do what they’ve been used to. But I want to do as much as I can to make it play better; make it play as good as it can be.”
Thanks to a lease package, he was able to ditch the 1990s-era five-reel triplexes for new mowers with three 11-blade reels.
Vessely recaptured the original putting surfaces by gradually dropping height of cut and mowing the areas with walkers until they were brought down to green height.
The greens are so interesting that after playing out a hole it’s difficult to walk off the green without dropping a golf ball and putting to all areas.
Since his arrival, Vessely aerates every spring and an outside company is brought in for a fall deep-tining, but he is careful to not shock the older grasses out of existence.
Helping Vessely’s task is the small amount of play the Culver course gets, which is only open to faculty, staff and students. When the golf teams are not on the layout it can get fewer than a dozen rounds in a day.
Along the way Vessely is also learning about architecture. Culver’s layout is one of the finest designs in the Langford-Moreau portfolio, a duo that worked mostly in the Midwest and who do not have the name familiarity of other Golden Age designers, even though their work is on par with the best. Their style is similar to the C.B. Macdonald-Seth Raynor-Charles Banks school, with big, bold features, large bunkers and massive putting surfaces with striking knobs and swales. There is strategy on every shot from tee to green.
Architects Pete and Alice Dye have a lake house just down the road from Culver. Across the street from their place is the nine-hole Maxinkuckee Country Club with five holes designed by Langford and Moreau and four holes built by someone with far less talent. Dye has said multiple times that Langford-Moreau had significant influence on his design style.
“Before I came here it never crossed my mind,” Vessely says of course architecture, but that has changed. “I’m always researching and looking. It’s really opened me up to something I wasn’t into.”
So Culver’s design has taught Vessely about architecture, and agronomy, especially when it comes to older grasses.
“It’s something you can feel and sense,” he says. “You have to listen to the turf.”